You Can’t Print That! Then there Was Fallout

Students did not meet the president of Northeastern University. Unless you had committed an exceptionally laudable deed, or one of exceptional blackness, you did not encounter Asa Knowles until your last day at college. 

After more than a decade running Northeastern, Dr. Knowles knew that cultivating a serene alumni and calming the parents of future alumni were the best ways to assure the continued flow of gifts and tuition dollars. Maintaining serenity and calm depended on portraying Northeastern as a place of intellectual rigor and discipline. That there might be explorations of a less noble and more intimate sort, that youthful collegians might defy authority by consuming or smoking substances of an illicit kind, those were sins that could never be linked to the Northeastern name and image.

In the summer of 1971, we published an edition of the Northeastern News, the student paper, that threatened the serenity and calm maintained by Knowles and piqued his anger to such a degree that as the paper’s editor, I was invited, along with managing editor Barry Gilbert, to meet the president. The blackness of our deed put our future at Northeastern very much at risk.

I’d arrived at Northeastern on a bright autumn afternoon in 1968. My recollection is that we double-parked on Hemenway Street. I pulled from the car a large brown suitcase purchased for this occasion, along with a blue case that enclosed a portable Smith Corona typewriter. I found my way upstairs to a third-floor apartment, the dorm: two rooms divided by a center hallway. The front room, with windows on the street, offered a double bunk and a single. The bottom bunk seemed unoccupied, so I dropped my stuff there. 

I was a kid from a suburb of Hartford, Conn., who could lay solid claim to both naivete and vast ignorance of the world. My roommates were sophisticated fellows from New York who seemed to know a great more than I, who knew neither the music of Cream nor the Grateful Dead, the Moody Blues nor Procol Harum. 

In those first days, Paul, Dana, Mike and I made the appointed college rounds. We received the official introductory lecture that included the famous admonition from Dean Kennedy to “… look to your left, look to your right. In six months, those people will be gone.” Clearly, we did not want to be one of those people, but could one escape that fate? On another evening we visited the student center to explore the extracurricular activities on offer. The range of things to do was impressive, but for me the question fell to either the radio station or the paper. 

The table of Northeastern News people teemed with serious looking, hirsute faces that seemed preoccupied with issues other than reeling in potential reportorial staff, or maybe they just looked daunting. I walked over to the WNEU radio table where, when I mentioned news, there was a spark of interest. Who wants to do news at a college radio station? Apparently, almost no one. Music was different, you could find an endless supply of people who wanted to spin records and polish their radio credentials, but news was a little outré. 

The radio station had great toys: professional grade tape decks, cassette decks, record decks. Digital toys were only a decade or so in the future. We recorded and spliced tape and tried to make the news happen on the radio. I was never certain who listened to WNEU, whether anyone did, which was OK because its news programming was no threat to WBZ, a 50,000-watt, clear-channel, AM behemoth in Boston. We worked at it, though, trying to make sense of the anti-Vietnam War action at Northeastern, in Boston and during the April 1971 march on Washington. 

Being the new guy proved to be demanding of energy and time. There was supposed to be studying, of course, this was still college, but the really discouraging realization was that I didn’t have the “voice.” After reading the news a few times, the station manager broke the news to me that WBZ would definitely not be calling, and that it would be better if I wrote it and someone else read it. Apparently, you can’t mold a deep, resonate baritone out of thin, tenor stuff. 

Shortly after the Washington march, I was surprised by a visit from some of the serious-looking faces at the Northeastern News. Would I consider moving my notepad to the print side? Was there time to study? I wondered. I was reassured that the News took almost no time at all. I departed radio news and walked my notepad to the News office.

There were no modern toys at the News, just old typewriters and paper. The people were serious about making a newspaper every week, 16 pages of what in those days was called a half sheet, or tabloid-size paper. 

I had been an editor of my high school paper, but this was different. This was not just a group of kids messing around with the idea of making a paper. There was no repackaging of press releases; there was no “puff.” These were good writers who wanted to tell stories about what students and the university were doing, especially in response to and about the war in Vietnam. They were then and, as it turns out, continue to be a talented and purposeful group. 

I needed to learn college newspapering urgently. My invitation to the News resulted because the current leadership, essentially all the key people, were about to walk the stage at the Boston Garden. Someone needed to carry on, a task that fell to Barry Gilbert and me. Fortuitously, Barry was a ringer, he was actually part of the Old Guard and knew the paper and how it worked. He’d missed a language course needed to graduate and agreed to stay on as managing editor at the News during the extra semester. 

Two years earlier, during the winter of freshman year, when the snow never seemed to stop falling, I was called in to the co-op office and invited to take an early semester at the Hartford Courant. It turned out that the Courant’s old typewriters were very much like the old machines in the News office, but at the Courant I wrote obituaries instead of news. 

Back to Boston for the summer term, there was a new apartment and two new roommates, one of whom was deeply engaged in connecting with his faith and spent most of his time at the Catholic student center. The other roommate John Mello, was from Massachusetts and not a music maven, but he was an insightful, gravely funny fellow who enjoyed a gin and tonic. This was, after all, summer in Boston and, while we were not, technically speaking, of an age to acquire liquorous spirits, we found both need and justification. We found a source and allowed ourselves weekend explorations and evening libations, which eventually cemented our friendship. 

Among his other virtues, John was a terrific writer, and I knew that he would be an asset to the News, but in what way required consideration. There were many facets of writing wanted at the News: sports, features, news and, most challenging, columns, notably one of long-standing headlined All Hail that was frequently a commentary on life at college, written with irreverence and humor. John had the writing skills and the humor to write All Hail, and eventually he agreed.

Each year, one of the big editions of the paper was created for Freshman Week. Matriculating members of the Class of 1976 who arrived early at their dorms and then decided to explore the quad might have picked up a copy of the Northeastern News. I imagine that reading the All Hail column we ran below the fold on the front page would have prompted laughter and maybe a little amazement. They really had made it out of high school and were about to enter a new league. 

Not many new students would actually see the paper, though, because one of the earliest readers that morning turned out to be Dr. Asa Knowles, the man who had led Northeastern since 1959. That afternoon, I received a call from Gilbert, who told me that the paper had been confiscated by people from the school’s building and grounds crew. Apparently, we had crossed a line that Knowles found unacceptable.

The offending column, entitled “A Day in the Life…,” is an exaggerated, satirical account of extracurricular pursuits to which naïve, incoming college students might be exposed. In addition to less than flattering references to dormitory life, the characters in the column are universally unsuccessful in attempts to have heterosexual commune, to smoke weed, to cure acne and to engage in homosexual commune. The language of the column is colloquial and includes coarse epithets.

Knowles was a builder. In a little more than a decade, he had reshaped a parochial Massachusetts engineering school into a national magnet for students by offering programs built on the cooperative education system of work and study, while expanding programs in the humanities and liberal arts. The school attracted 15,000 students (many part time) in 1959 and 35,000 (many full time) 20 years later. After a long career in academia, Knowles was only a few years from retirement.

Sometimes we ran stories mentioning Knowles, but I knew nothing about him, had never met him nor did I know anyone who had ever encountered him, at least no students. Our one contact with the school’s administration was the paper’s academic adviser, Harvey Vetstein, the assistant dean of students and a News staffer in his student days, with whom I frequently met on Friday afternoon after the paper’s Thursday delivery. Harvey was the breakwater between the paper and the administration. It had never seemed that there was a great deal to moderate, but, this time, something had clearly angered the great powers.

Enrolling in college is a little like walking the aisles of a sophisticated store. It just takes longer and costs more. During the great college bazaar, high school seniors and their parents — the prospective customers — are plied with offers of growth and opportunity. You don’t arrive at college thinking very much about infrastructure or services. The brochures or websites promise living spaces, food options, inspired teaching. Students find and adopt the promised amenities as part of the accepted arrangement.

Knowles surely understood the bargain being made but, more broadly, also understood that the complex tangle of buildings and services, teachers and administrators, and the money to cement it together is never assured. 

The measurable quality of everything on offer at a school may be unimpeachable, but the reputation of an institution inevitably tips the balance of choice. Like the status bestowed by Tiffany’s blue box, students and parents want the best school they can afford. To damage the patina of quality strikes at the heart of the builder. 

For Knowles, the Northeastern News had taken the family car, driven with reckless abandon, dented fenders and smashed glass. On the other hand, the drivers at the News did not even know we held the keys to the car. 

No email, no text messaging, no cell phones existed in 1971. If there was a procedure by which a student might be summoned to the office of Northeastern’s president, it may have been by letter. I don’t recall receiving one. More likely, Vetstein presented the terms of a meeting. 

I recall a reception area, a stern-seeming guardian, then being ushered into a dark, wood-lined space, a balding man behind a vast desk. Knowles had a good deal to say. He had considered our infidelities at length and wanted Barry and me to know that as the ringleaders of the infidels, we were responsible for considerable damage to the family car. We had stepped on the Blue Box. 

At first, he delivered remarks seated behind the desk, while we stood to receive them. As his tone, emphatic, increased with a considerable degree of anger, he rose from his seat and planted both hands on the desk. Not as tall as he seemed sitting down and more gray, he was girdled by something that looked like a cummerbund. I was mesmerized. The stream of diatribe slipped away for several moments as I puzzled over this piece of equipment, or dress, or something. 

Finally, speaking with a good deal of constrained anger, he said that he thought that Barry, John Mello and I were unsuited to continue at the school and should be expunged from its rolls. I heard that quite clearly. Expelled … dismissed … erased from everything. I was able to walk out of the office, but the earth seemed to quake, and it felt as if I had been slammed in the side of the head. What would my parents think? What about John and Barry? What about their parents? This rock in the pond began to ripple in many unexpected directions. 

And so, we waited.

The president had unwittingly leaped into an academic minefield laid out by James Madison in 1789:

“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed. The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable …”

Newspapers rely on the First Amendment to the Constitution as a routine matter of self-protection, but institutions of higher learning rely on the same guarantees to protect the research and writing of academics. Knowles could certainly have argued that the News was an organ of a private university and not protected by the First Amendment, but he also recognized that the faculty expected the same constitutional protection and would bridle at the recognition of such callous disregard for guarantees of academic freedom they expected for themselves, as well as for the college newspaper. 

No letter of expulsion followed. Instead, the administration announced an investigation. There would be a tribunal, a colloquy that included several professional newspaper people from the Boston Globe and the Herald Traveler, who would meet to review the evidence. Our examiners were gracious and professional. There were several meetings at which we were asked to testify about the News, how we worked, how stories came to be. More than just the facts of the situation, I thought that they were trying to assess our intentions, to understand whether there was some insidious effort to undermine or cause harm. We made the case that we were trying to attract readers with engaging content, and doing that while operating in accord with what we took to be high journalistic standards. 

Then it was over. Poor judgment, but no finding of fault, no assertion that we had abused our responsibility as editors and writers. It did not feel as if we had won, we had not picked the fight. We could stay, we would graduate, our parents would not suffer a grave embarrassment. 

After the paper dropped on Thursdays, I met again on Friday afternoons with Vetstein, still the point person who took his boss’ calls, often as I sat with him, overhearing the fraught argument on the other end of the phone. Harvey was invariably reassuring. Be mindful, be professional, even consider the concerns of the president, he would argue, but believe that the angst would not seem so pressing Monday as it had on a Friday afternoon, for anyone on either side. 

Tell the truth, he said. It’s a great defense.